Review: Elysium


As the month of August swelters through, we arrive at what tends to be a dumping ground between the Hollywood blockbusters of the summer and the prestige films prepping for the fall. August may not have the most consistently quality films on its schedule, but perhaps a film as indicative as Elysium can raise the month’s stock in studios’ minds. As a tale of class warfare, it may be thematically blunt with insistently excessive backstory, but its visual textures and engaging narrative allow it to stand as one of the most robust films of the summer.

The mind behind Elysium is that of Neill Blomkamp, whose District 9 burst open in 2009 and provided a powerful allegory of apartheid in South Africa. His focus in Elysium is once again on a clash, this time between class systems. In the mid-22nd century, the Earth has become ravaged with overpopulated and pollution. Technology has accelerated fast enough that a massive space station, Elysium, has been built 200 miles above the surface, and all its wealthy inhabitants enjoy the comforts of life, carefree of disease, war and poverty. The billions that remain on Earth have become nothing more than working class drones. Our protagonist Max (Matt Damon) lives in Los Angeles and is abandoning his criminal reputation by falling in with the rest of society. When he falls victim to a life altering accident at work, his only chance of staying alive lies in Elysium. The opening ten minutes of Elysium are its most critical and yet its most jarring. Blomkamp provides stunning visuals to set up his polar worlds, but the film breezes through them as if cut like a trailer. A childhood friendship of Max’s is also established, tying into his desire to live on that wheel in space. Much of this exposition is surprisingly heavy handed given the subtlety that Blomkamp filtered through District 9, but once the film finally settles down into its narrative, it moves at a consistently breathless clip.

Damon is once again as consistent as one can hope for, whose effortless magnetism on screen carries the weight of the film with ease. Jodie Foster also costars as Delacourt, a chief political presence on Elysium with her own mission to take control of the aerial civilization’s bureaucracy. Her presence onscreen is certainly intimidating, but her motivations are increasingly murky. If there is a true villain in Elysium it is Delacourt’s ruthless henchman Kruger, played with endless zest by Sharlto Copley. If Copley seems like an unfamiliar face, it’s because he is worlds away from his bumbling main character in District 9. Kruger is a sadistic menace who takes pure glee in destroying people in brutal fashion, and though his humor is ink black, Copley’s incredible turn is easily the most unforgettable aspect of the film. The other characters populating the film aren’t particularly memorable even though they’re given solid performances from faces like Alica Braga, William Fichtner and Diego Luna.

The most powerful asset to Blomkamp’s filmmaking is the production design, and the believability of Elysium rests directly on it. Everything in this future feels plausible and tactile, from the weaponry, the vehicles, the decay of Los Angeles, and of course, the massive station above. WETA’s work from both practical and digital ends is supremely impressive and yet never gets in the way of the storytelling. The photographic approach to Elysium also reflects the grit Blomkamp strives for. Shot in mostly comprehensible handheld in addition to some person mounted angles, Elysium does a commendable job of portraying chaos without fear of losing its bearings. Its best action sequence, however, comes early on in a truly white knuckle scene of illegals flying up to the station in undocumented shuttles. Admittedly, it doesn’t serve any plot points, but the scene’s immaculate construction perfectly provides a sense of the stakes involved. Most of the other elements of the film are serviceable: the editing is rarely slack thanks to the instincts of Lee Smith, but the score employs far too many foghorns to rely on fabricated tension.

Despite its narrative issues, Elysium is one of the finer films of a lackluster summer, and certainly a welcome follow up to District 9. Even with its straightforward approach to storytelling, few filmmakers are truly capable of world building from the ground up like Neill Blomkamp. Far too often do fantasy and sci-fi films originate from adapted material, so Blomkamp’s original approach makes him a key cinematic voice for the genre. From the apartheid to class warfare, the subtexts of his films are certainly worth exploring, and leave one salivating for what new world he’ll discover next.


~ by romancinema on August 14, 2013.

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